Victor Mambor, Jayapura – Indonesia has strongly criticized the tiny Pacific island-nation of Vanuatu for including an exiled Papuan separatist leader as a member of its delegation during a meeting in Geneva last week with the U.N. human rights chief.
Benny Wenda, chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, joined the Vanuatu delegation during the discussion with Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet on Jan. 25.
While attending the closed-door session, Wenda said he presented a petition signed by 1.8 million Papuans that seeks a referendum on independence for Indonesia's easternmost province. BenarNews could not confirm Wenda's claim about the signatures.
"Vanuatu's action is very regrettable and inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the United Nations charter," Hasan Kleib, the Indonesian ambassador to the U.N., said in a statement. "Vanuatu deliberately deceived the U.N. High Commissioner with their manipulative step of slipping Benny Wenda into their delegation."
He said Wenda's name was not included on an official delegation list submitted before the meeting. "Indonesia will never back down in protecting and defending its territorial integrity," Kleib said.
The Papua region, which consists of Papua and West Papua provinces, is home to about 5 million people, including more than 2.5 million members of indigenous tribes.
Wenda said he briefed Bachelet about the situation in Papua's Nduga regency, where government forces launched a security operation after the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the separatist movement, killed 19 construction workers and a soldier in early December.
Rebels claimed that at least seven civilians were killed in the operation and hundreds fled to the jungle.
"We urged the United Nations to use its mandate to pressure Indonesia to open access to Nduga because to this day access to Nduga is still blocked by the TNI (military)," Wenda said.
Wenda also asked for an investigation into allegations that the military had used white phosphorus during anti-rebel operations. White phosphorous is highly toxic and burns when it comes in contact with oxygen.
Col. Muhammad Aidi, the Indonesian military spokesman in Papua, denied Wenda's allegation. "The TNI has never done those things. He could not show proof for his accusations," Aidi said.
Last week's meeting focused on discussing Vanuatu's periodic review before a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, said Ravina Shamdasani, a U.N. spokeswoman in Geneva.
"When the meeting was under way, Benny Wenda submitted the petition," Shamdasani wrote to BenarNews in an email.
Shamdasani said the office was waiting for a follow-up invitation from Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to visit Papua. The president extended an invitation last year to Bachelet's predecessor, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein.
"The U.N. Human Rights Office is working with Indonesia on human rights issues in Papua and is still awaiting access," she said.
Ambassador Kleib, meanwhile, said the invitation stood. "A schedule is still being worked out and hopefully it can be done in 2019," he said.
Meanwhile in Papua on Thursday, a soldier was injured when rebels attacked a military patrol in Nduga's Mapenduma area, according to Aidi, the provincial spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces. The rebels retreated to the jungle when soldiers returned fire, he said, adding that three soldiers had been killed in clashes with the insurgents in January.
Most recently, a soldier guarding the airfield in Mapenduma was killed on Monday when rebels opened fire on an aircraft carrying Nduga regent Yarius Gwijangge and two other officials.
Military officials believe a local rebel group under the leadership of Egianus Kogoya was responsible for the attack, said Brig. Gen. Irham Waroihan, the TNI chief of staff in Papua.
"This group's actions have been beyond the pale," he said. "To avoid more casualties, I have asked our members to be vigilant at all times."
Rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said the attack was carried out after a National Police helicopter landed in the airfield.
"The police dropped goods and weapons to be used during raids on the people of Nduga," he said.
Papua declared its independence from Dutch colonial rule on Dec. 1, 1961, but that was rejected by the Netherlands and later by Indonesia.
In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the region and annexed it following a contentious referendum in 1969. During the plebiscite, according to rights groups, security forces selected slightly more than 1,000 people to agree to the region's formal absorption into the archipelagic nation.
– Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.